Tony Abou-Ganim & Adam Seger: On Vodka, Vermouth, and Cocktail Culture in Russia

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Chef Salad takes a detour this week, interviewing three more of the country's leading beverage industry experts, all of whom are participants in the second annual AZ Cocktail Week, which started this past weekend and runs through February 22. Seminars are held in the Sands Room at the Hotel Valley Ho.

See also: Wine Geek and Spirit Savant Steve Olson: On What We're Drinking Now and What We'll Be Drinking in the Future Charlotte Voisey: On Molecular Mixology and Being a Bartender

If you missed Adam Seger's seminar on Dear Beer Cocktails yesterday, you can read his thoughts on vermouth and craft spirits right here today. Tony Abou-Ganim will be conducting a seminar on The Joy of Vodka today at 5 p.m. at the Hotel Valley Ho. H. Joseph Ehrmann will also conduct a seminar today at 3 p.m. on Craft Distillers and Artisanal Spirits. Same location. Read his interview here tomorrow.

Tony Abou-Ganim

Tony Abou-Ganim grew up in the bar business, making classic cocktails at his cousin's bar in Michigan before becoming interested in mixology old and new, educating people about the history and lore of cocktails through TV appearances, DVDs and books (The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails). He operates his own beverage consulting firm and has just completed a new book on vodka called Vodka Distilled. You can buy a copy at his seminar on vodka today.

Tell us about America's cocktail culture: I've never seen this much excitement behind bartending and craft cocktails. This is the Second Coming of the Golden Age. The first Golden Age was from the 1840's up to Prohibition. I wonder what cocktails would be like if Prohibition hadn't ruined our craft, which was decimated by the speakeasies. It was a dark time for bartenders. The craft suffered. It's just in the last 10 years that American bartenders are viewing it as a career again and not just a part-time job. It's an amazing time to be behind an American bar.

Are you a bartender or a mixologist?: We're all bartenders. We tend bars and love doing it. A good bartender knows my name, has a smile on his face, keeps track of the sports scores and what I like to drink. We're in the hospitality industry, after all.

Do you write books for bartenders or hobbyists?: It's just as important to write to the consumers as to the bartenders. My books embrace the consumer, and this new one [Vodka Distilled] walks them through an appreciation and celebration of vodka, which was popular in the '40s, '50s and '60s for its neutrality and mixability.

What do you hope people come away from your seminar understanding about vodka?: I want people to enjoy vodka for vodka's sake. With greater knowledge, comes greater enjoyment. Vodkas don't taste the same. The differences are subtle, but let's see what raw materials, distillation, filtration and water bring to the table. Vodka deserves a spot on the back bar, and customers shouldn't be thought less of for wanting it. Beautiful drinks like the Cosmopolitan shouldn't be thrown under the bus either.

Adam Seger

Founder/mixologist of Hum Spirits Company, Adam Seger -- a certified culinary professional as well as a Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced Sommelier -- has been called "The Charlie Trotter of Cocktails" for his chef's approach to bartending. Based in Chicago, he is currently expanding his line of cocktail bitters and working on a book entitled Drink Like You Eat: 40 Cocktails From the Garden to the Glass.

Tell us about presenting cocktails for the Russian Cocktail Club in Moscow. Who even knew they had a cocktail club in Moscow?: Well, Russia is a country of extremes -- extreme poverty and more billionaires per capita than any other country in the world. It's always been a drinking culture, but right now, cocktails are really hot. Bek Narzi, a Russian bartender who worked in many prestigious bars in London at the peak of its cocktail culture renaissance, founded the club (composed of mixologists) in 2008 to develop the bar industry in Russia. He brings in guest bartenders once a month. Because his background is London (which is very progressive) and Japan (which is still very ceremonial), he brings the best of both cultures together. Narzi became fascinated with our culture at Tales of the Cocktail and invited me to be his first American guest. Nearly everything but beets and potatoes is imported there. I brought fresh herbs, teas, citrus and other fruits.

London has been the trend-setting seat of the world's cocktail culture. How did that happen?: During Prohibition, the top U.S. bartenders went to Europe, and we had 13-14 years of bootleg booze and bathtub gin. Europe got ahead of us. As a culture, England has never been afraid of alcohol, and London is the financial center of Europe. To be a barman in London right now is like being a chef in France.

You made The Color Purple-inspired cocktails for Colin Cowie's Oprah 25 party, attended by A-list celebs. So, were they purple?: Oprah was on a Moscow Mule kick at the time, so I made a Magenta Mule with Hum Fair Trade Hibiscus, ginger, cardamom, kaffir lime and home-made ginger beer. I also made The Cocktail Purple, which was bourbon muddled with pluots, rhubarb and maple syrup, served with a rhubarb stir-stick and flowering herbs.

What are trends you're seeing?: Vermouth is an exciting category. Two years ago, you couldn't find anything but sweet or dry vermouth, whereas pre-Prohibition, there were lots of high-quality choices and every other cocktail was made with it. Bartenders have begun to realize that vermouth is wine and that Americans have been drinking three-year-old oxidized vermouth for a long time.

Anything else?: Craft spirits are growing steadily. Small-production, local spirits are showing up on lists. Interesting botanicals -- Amaro, Chartreuse -- are becoming popular, people are making their own bitters, and there's a trend against artificial flavors.

Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Tony Abou-Ganim & Adam Seger Charlotte Voisey of Best American Brands Ambassador Steve Olson of Valley Ho Dough Robson of Gallo Blanco Edward Farrow of The Cafe at MIM Greg LaPrad of Quiessence & Morning Glory Cafe Joshua Johnson of Kai Joshua Johnson of Kai Todd Sicolo of T.Cooks Josh Riesner of Pig & Pickle Lester Gonzalez of Cowboy Ciao M.J. Coe of Federal Pizza Steven "Chops" Smith of Searsucker Aaron Chamberlin of St. Francis Michael Rusconi of Rusconi's American Kitchen Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot Lynn Rossetto of The Splendid Table Cullen Campbell of Crudo DJ Monti Carlo Pete DeRuvo of Davanti Enoteca Chuck Wiley of Cafe ZuZu Justin Beckett of Beckett's Table Bryan Dooley of Bryan's Black Mountain Barbecue Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House James Porter of Petite Maison Johnny Chu of SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles

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